Shush!: Grow­ing up Jew­ish Under Stalin

Emil Draitser
  • Review
By – January 3, 2012

The title, Shush! refers to the word most nec­es­sary for sur­vival in the vir­u­lent anti- Semit­ic Stal­in­ist Sovi­et Union. We con­tin­ue to hear the warn­ings, Don’t use your Jew­ish name in pub­lic,” Don’t speak a word of Yid­dish,” Don’t speak of your mur­dered rel­a­tives,” intoned through­out the writer’s childhood. 

As Draitser and his fam­i­ly, who have sur­vived the unimag­in­able hor­ror of Hitler, are forced to sur­vive as Jews in the new night­mare under Stal­in, they must all adapt to a new set of state rules, need­ing to keep secret the father’s occu­pa­tion as a (wage-earn­ing) house painter, at the same time that their son is sub­ject­ed to ongo­ing bul­ly­ing attacks as a young child, and when old­er, to the con­tin­u­ing tyran­ny of the par­ty, becom­ing to his par­ents’ hor­ror a Young Com­mu­nist Lea­guer,” who will shy away from any­thing that iden­ti­fies him as a Jew, even when at home.

It will not be until forty years lat­er that Draitser will dis­cov­er the mind-numb­ing truths of the loss of life of close mem­bers of his fam­i­ly begin­ning with the ear­ly years of the 20th cen­tu­ry when Ukrain­ian pogroms claimed their lives to the shat­tered rem­nants of the hideous reigns of Hitler and Stal­in. His iron­i­cal­ly caus­tic com­ment about a lost young aunt who failed to leave Europe when some of his fam­i­ly had suc­ceed­ed, She stayed behind; her…tombstone was too heavy for her to lift,” is not lost on us.

Draitser, a respect­ed writer and pro­fes­sor of Russ­ian at Hunter Col­lege in New York City, can only now, with wrench­ing dif­fi­cul­ty, acknowl­edge that the past must nev­er be dis­card­ed from our mem­o­ry.” He is grate­ful to be ready even at this late date to raise his voice and declare him­self a Jew. 

Iron­i­cal­ly it is we as read­ers who are now to be the bene­fac­tors again and again from the advanc­ing ages of the Jew­ish sur­vivors of many of last millennium’s trag­ic and hideous his­to­ry as they, mind­ful of the men­ac­ing pas­sage of time, are now reach­ing for the pen, often at the risk of great pain to them­selves while time per­mits, in order to leave for us their stories.

Ruth Seif is a retired chair­per­son of Eng­lish at Thomas Jef­fer­son High School in NYC. She served as admin­is­tra­tor in the alter­na­tive high school division.

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